AG Cooper’s Lobbying Duty

In something of an oddity, Tennessee Attorney General Bob Cooper is lobbying the Legislature on behalf of consumers who he thinks would be harmed by a bill that allows natural gas companies to raise rates annually with less regulatory oversight.
“This bill likely would result in unjustified price increases and does not have the necessary safeguards to protect consumers – not just residential consumers, but business and commercial concerns as well,” Cooper said in a brief interview.
The Consumer Advocate Division of the Attorney General’s Office regularly takes on consumer matters in courts and before the Tennessee Regulatory Authority, which oversees utilities such as natural gas companies.
But Cooper said opposition to HB1349, as written, marks the first time since he became attorney general that an active lobbying campaign has been waged against a bill pending in the General Assembly.
Cooper said he was unaware of whether his predecessors in the office had made similar efforts. The attorney general said he felt obliged to do so because a state law says the consumer advocate office has “duty” represent consumer interests on utility matters before the Legislature as well as regulatory agencies.
His efforts have included a personal meeting with Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, sponsor of the bill pushed by natural gas companies. Sargent was apparently unswayed, but Cooper said “discussions are continuing.”
Under current law, natural gas companies must file a petition with the Tennessee Regulatory Authority seeking a rate increase, then present data showing the need. The consumer advocate division and others can argue against the proposal.
For example, Atmos Energy Corp., which provides gas in Blount County and much of Northeast Tennessee, recently sought a $7.3 million increase that was reduced to $2.5 million in an agreement following regulatory authority proceedings. The consumer advocate division said in a news release that meant a 95-cent monthly increase for the average residential customer versus $2.40 under the original filing.
The bill would allow companies to file for rate increases every year, which would be approved by the Tennessee Regulatory Authority without a hearing. It would be subject to challenge by opposing parties after taking effect. Also, companies could pass on to consumers the cost of gas conservation efforts under the bill, then collect a 15 percent bonus for the “economic benefit” of conservation plans.
“Since the utility’s customers are required to pay for all of the costs of these plans, the benefits generated by them should flow to the customers rather than the utility,” says a statement from the consumer advocate division opposing the bill.
Sargent said the bill will help consumers overall, promoting conservation efforts and allowing small annual increases on a “streamlined” basis rather than less frequent but more substantial rate increases. Ample safeguards remain in place, he said.
The measure, set for a vote Tuesday before a House subcommittee, is also opposed by the Tennessee AARP.

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